Lenn Hannon: 'He told it to you straight'

    Hannon warily watches the participants in a budget debate in the Legislative Fiscal Office in 2001.

    Lenn Hannon, a maverick Republican known for bridging the partisan divide in Salem during his nearly 30 years as senator, died from complications due to lung disease Thursday night at his Salem home. He was 66.

    Hannon represented the Senate district that covered Ashland and much of the southern portion of Jackson County from 1974 to 2004.

    His wife, Dixie, said her husband's health had declined over the past four years, then worsened around Christmas. He died at 11:15 p.m. surrounded by family and close friends.

    "He was able to say 'I love you,' even though he couldn't talk in any other way," she said. "Those were his last words, if anybody got close to him. There were a lot of miracles in his last hours."

    She said they spent most of their lives in Jackson County, living in Ashland, where they raised their five children, who then had 12 grandchildren.

    Hannon worked for 21 years for the city of Ashland as a heavy equipment operator and later was a partner in a Medford insurance agency.

    Hannon offered a few surprise moves as senator, changing parties from Democratic to Republican not long after he was elected. After Hannon left office, he was appointed to the state Parole Board, which required the move to Salem.

    Former Sen. Lynn Newbry of Talent said he was surprised when Hannon became a Republican several years after he defeated Newbry in 1974.

    Newbry said Hannon's decision to change parties grew out of his offense at the unions trying to tell him what to do. "That surprised me because he was a labor man," he said.

    Newbry said Hannon also opposed other planks in the Democratic Party such as abortion.

    Hannon's leadership skills and straight talk impressed Newbry almost immediately and took away any of the sting of defeat.

    "I had no problem with him even though he beat me," 85-year-old Newbry said. "Lenn was a friend of mine, and we got along throughout the years. He was a good legislator."

    Newbry last spoke to Hannon about two months ago, saying he sounded good, but had been relying on an oxygen tank for the past two years.

    Among Hannon's many accomplishments in office was his leadership in securing $20 million in state bonding for a library at Southern Oregon University along with a local delegation including Alan Bates, who was then a representative but who now occupies Hannon's former Senate seat. In 2004, the university named the library the Lenn and Dixie Hannon Library.

    Bates, an Ashland Democrat, praised Hannon's tenure in Salem, describing him as extremely bipartisan and a personal mentor.

    "He did a wonderful job for Southern Oregon and for the whole state," Bates said. "He was often the bridge in the Senate between Democrats and Republicans. He was commonly the swing vote on a lot of issues."

    Bates described Hannon as feisty and a bit of a curmudgeon, who knew every nook and cranny in the Capitol.

    "He never was really mean, but you had this feeling that you never wanted to cross him and get him going," he said.

    Gov. Ted Kulongoski praised Hannon as a "fierce advocate" for health care and a strong supporter of providing tuition help to students.

    "Beyond his record in the Legislature, Lenn Hannon was a person who was respected by all of those who knew him," the governor said in a statement. "He told it to you straight, something that was always appreciated by those who worked with him, even when they didn't necessarily agree on the issue."

    Hannon often fought for funding for Southern Oregon projects. In addition to the SOU library, he helped secure funds for the renovation of the Medford Armory, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and countless public works projects. He was a prime advocate of the 1997 legislation that renamed Southern Oregon State College as Southern Oregon University.

    During his last few years in office, Hannon struggled with the new makeup of the Senate when term limits brought in a new set of faces. Hannon's style was to develop rapport with his fellow legislators, and he found it difficult as partisan rancor became more common, Bates said.

    Hannon himself said he had grown tired of shenanigans that led to the longest legislative session in Oregon's history in 2003.

    Bates described Hannon as affable and a big help for him in his freshman years.

    "He was always generous with his time and his advice," he said.

    Living up to his maverick image, Hannon was well-known in the Capitol building for his smoking, frequently opening a window in a hallway to light up one of his Swisher Sweets.

    During the 2001 and 2003 legislative sessions, Hannon would show his disdain for the ban on smoking in the building.

    Dixie Hannon said a huge fan was installed in Hannon's office to suck out the fumes, and her husband would invite all his smoking buddies to come in for a cigarette.

    "He always rebelled about not being able to smoke in his office," she said.

    Her husband also battled alcoholism, seeking treatment about 15 years ago.

    His counselor, Patrick Doyle, came to Hannon's side about an hour before he died, she said.

    Dixie said her husband was often the point man between Senate Democrats and Republicans.

    He wouldn't hesitate to show his displeasure if someone obstinately refused to see things his way, resorting to what he called "behavior modification."

    "Lenn would put his foot down and stomp away and act like he was angry," she said. "He would often express his anger in caucus."

    At the same time, he had an open door policy and always had time to discuss issues with anyone who came to his office or met him in the hallways.

    Hannon was not one to sit still during his life, switching to Catholicism about 10 years ago even though his father had been a minister in the Church of the Nazarene.

    Born on the Fourth of July, Hannon always had a lot of drive and determination to get things done throughout his life, his wife said.

    "He was a man who came into our life not by happenstance, but through the hand of God," she said.

    Hannon also told his wife he planned to die on Easter.

    "He didn't quite make it, but he did die during Holy Week," she said.

    Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476, or e-mail dmann@mailtribune.com.

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